Written by Emily Phan, LMFT
Communication challenges are among the common presenting concerns that I see from adult clients when they reach out for therapy. I hear different statements such as, “we are so busy all the time that we no longer even talk to each other”, or “every conversation turns into a fight” and “it’s like we don’t even know each other anymore”. Over time these experiences lead to frustration, misunderstandings and withdrawal. Trying to navigate a new course can be a difficult task as each partner often falls back into familiar patterns and each new attempt to communicate better seems to end in some sort of conflict.
I find myself referring to several different researchers/therapists (such as Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Gary Chapman) who have presented information on better understanding people and providing communication strategies that have been vetted and confirmed as helpful. In this blog, I will focus on communication in romantic relationship. In this instance, it is important to remember that you have both chosen each other to partner with in this life. Understanding that the other person’s intentions are coming from a good place is the first step to get to the meaning behind their complaint versus feeling defensive from the start. Giving your partner the benefit of the doubt versus assuming that they were intentionally hurtful or careless will help set the tone of the conversation.
Dr. John Gottman has learned that the first three minutes of any conversation almost always determine the outcome of that conversation. This information is helpful because it reminds us that when we need to bring up a sensitive subject with another person then we need to be thoughtful about the manner in which we broach that subject. This is the time to focus on “I statements” to help the other person understand your intentions and to minimize their defensiveness while increasing their receptiveness to your feelings and your experience. In this moment, think through the desire behind your complaint, for example, the complaint would be “we never spend time together anymore or if we do you always have your phone” whereas the desire behind that complaint is essentially stating, “I miss spending time with you and I would like for us to have some distraction free time together”.
Communicating well with your partner also involves really knowing them. Understanding how your partner expresses and receives love as thoroughly as understanding your own expression of love helps to fill up each other’s emotional bank account. Making the other person a priority and intentionally making more deposits in their emotional bank account than withdrawals is essential.
Dr. Gary Chapman has written books about the way love is expressed through different “languages” that each partner speaks. Communicating love to your partner through a language which they understand and receive will speak to them more intensely than to believe you are communicating love to them from your own perspective or through the filter of your love language. Buying flowers for your partner when what they really desire is spending quality time may still be appreciated but it will not be as meaningful.
At times, boundaries and non-negotiables have to be communicated to a partner. These conversations are often avoided until a certain boiling point gets reached because they can feel uncomfortable for several reasons. Sometimes the pitfall of providing ultimatums sets in or feelings of guilt and selfishness can surface. These moments require some thoughtfulness and planning in order to communicate successfully. Planning out the timing for this conversation is important because impulsively spilling out hard lines in the midst of an argument will be less effective than bringing up the topic during an emotionally regulated time with your partner.
The thoughtfulness piece comes back around to the importance of how to broach a sensitive conversation. Focusing on your needs in this conversation is essential to create a healthy boundary and understanding between partners. While this particular article has focused the attention of communication between partners, these same techniques can be generalized over to other relationships as well: family members, co-workers, friends or neighbors. Take a moment to recognize the nature of this relationship. While “I statements” may still be appropriate it may be more helpful to discuss facts or observations versus feelings depending on the goals within that particular relationship. Know your audience, plan the timing, provide intentions or goals, and be clear about needs and expectations. Using these tools, you can improve your communication and deepen your relationships.